South African Military History Society

Durban Branch October 1998 News Sheet No 284

It never fails to amaze the depth and wealth of knowledge we have in our Society on matters of Military history. For example, at our September meeting fellow-member, Prof Mike Laing opened proceedings with a short talk on probably one of the biggest, or at least one of the most decisive battle of this century. His tantalizing talk on "Zhukov and the Klialkhin Gol" brought to light a little known battle on the Russo-Manchurian border which took place in August 1939, while Hitler was subduing Poland at the start of the Second World War.

Attacking with a massive Russian Army comprising aircraft, tanks and artillery and tactics similar to our own Zulu horn formation. Zhukov completely annihilated an invading Japanese Army in a bight of land between the Khalkhin River and the Russian border. Using a double pincer movement of heavy annour, he encircled and trapped the Japanese Army in a swampy terrain and then proceeded to wipe them out. There were no survivors! The shock and ferocity of this battle had the effect of keeping Japanese expansion away from Russia while the Russians dealt with the Germans subsequent to their 1941 invasion in the west. It also brought Zhukov to the attention of Stalin who later made him Supreme Military Commander and ultimately the Hero of the USSR.

Our main talk for the evening was on the long awaited "Arnhem" and it was given by fellow- member, Pat Budd. Starting off with an actuality recording of the BBC World News of l7th September 1944, our speaker introduced "Operation Market Garden" which included the story of Arnhem. Using overhead projections, our speaker gave us a brief history of airborne forces. It would appear that the Russians pioneered their use in the 1930's and that a German observer, Kurt Student who was attending the demonstration of Russian military forces at the time was much impressed. He went back to Nazi Germany and with the aid of Von Ribbentrop, convinced the German High Command of the strategic value of this type of warfare. The Germans first used airborne attack in Poland in 1939 and again in Norway in April 1940, but the losses were high. However, they really proved themselves as part of the "Blitzkrieg" tactics with the invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940 when they outflanked the Belgians fortress of Eben- Emael and the French Maginot Line.

The British had never seen anything like it and one of the first things Churchill did after Dunkirk was to institute an Airborne Division. He wanted 5 000 troops trained by Christmas 1940. The first use of airborne troops by the British was in a raid in Southern Italy, but it turned into a bit of a debacle when the submarine that was supposed to take them off never made the rendezvous. The next was a raid on a radar station in France. The radar station was dismantled and vital parts taken back to England. Then finally, airborne troops came into their own on D-Day when the British and US Airborne Divisions captured the vital access bridges leading to the Normandy invasion beaches, thereby preventing the Germans from bringing in their reinforcements.

Our speaker then went on to describe how the German forces had been put on the run after the Allied forces broke out of the Normandy area and had been chased back to the banks of the Rhine. Montgomery wanted to concentrate on a single British column cutting through Northern Europe on to the plain of North Germany. His idea was to isolate Germany from its industrial Ruhr thereby crippling its war effort. He also intended to beat the Russians to Berlin. It was hoped that the war would then be over by Christmas. Eisenhower, who wanted a broader approach which would include the Americans, fell out with Montgomery on this issue, but appreciated the value of crossing the Rhine before the Northern winter set in. He opted for the capture of the five critical bridges from Holland into Germany, but he was also wary of his supply lines as, at that stage, the Allies did not have access to the Channel ports or Antwerp. His plan was that the US 101st Airborne Division would attack the bridges at Son and Veghel in the south and the US 82nd Airborne Division at Grave on the Maas and Nijmegen in the centre. The First British Airborne Division, at their own request, would go for the bridge at Arnhem in the north.

This was the "Market" part of the operation and the "Garden" part of it would be the link up with the 2nd Army and the XXXth Corps on the ground thus allowing the later to roll forward to the Yssel Meer and create the necessary bridgehead into Northern Germany. Notwithstanding the fact that Arnhem was the most difficult to accomplish, it was decided that due to lack of aircraft, the British airborne drop would have to be in three stages. Also, due to the swampy (polder) nature of the terrain and heavy concentrations of "flak" in the vicinity, they would have to be dropped some 8 miles away from Arnhem Bridge!

Unfortunately for the British, the glider carrying their jeeps never arrived so they had to march the whole distance to their objective. In addition, the British radios failed to work and the existing maps of the area were inadequate. Finally, far from the area being lightly defended with untrained troops low on morale, the Germans had several divisions in the area including the remnants of two crack Panzer Divisions that were being regrouped and refined at the time. Also, the Germans were under the command of Gen. Model - a veteran from the Eastern Front!

Our speaker then went on to describe how the British went from one disaster to another with the loss of their commanders, battle-plans and valuable supplies and equipment. However, they still maaged to capture one end of the bridge at Arnhem, but after a week of intense fighting with an ever-decreasing perimeter, no food or ammunition, were forced to surrender. The Americans fought their way through from Nijmegen, but arrived too late to assist and had to give up their hard gotten gains. Without the capture of all five bridges, it was pointless to continue holding the others. The hopes of finishing the war before Christmas were abandoned and it was the Russians who finally captured Berlin, thereby changing the face of Europe for nearly half a century.

After the usual grueling question time, fellow-member, Major John Buchan conveyed the thanks of the meeting to our speakers for a most interesting and informative evening.

BATTLEFIELDS' TOUR: The "Ladysmith Siege Battlefields" proved to be one of the most popular tours this Society has ever undertaken. Over 90 members and their friends attended and as promised in our last Newsletter, it was a "humdinger"!! The sites chosen were Tchrengula, Caesar's Camp (Platrand) and Spionkop. Lack of space precludes any description of the various talks given by our battery of speakers, but they were magnificent. In the morning those who survived the climb up Tchrengula were treated to the Battles of "Mournful Monday" which included Nicholson's Nek. Then, in the afternoon, it was on to the Burgers' Monument at Caesar's Camp or Platrand as the Boers called it. Unfortunately, a bitterly cold wind made conditions very unpleasant and it was a relief to go on to Wagon Hill and Wagon Point. The final visit to the Siege Museum in the evening was an event in itself and regretfully we had to drag ourselves away to let the attendants who had opened it up especially for the occasion, go home.
The Royal Hotel really put themselves out to make our stay as pleasant as possible and to those that managed to survive the rigours of the first day, a very enjoyable Saturday evening was spent socializing and catching up on the news of friends only seen on such occasions.
Unfortunately, the weather did not co-operate and the bitterly cold wind of the Saturday afternoon turned into a howling gale straight off the Antarctic on the Sunday morning. Nevertheless, those who braved the conditions on Spionkop were treated to a wonderful series of talks on all aspects of that great battle. Gilbert Torlage was our speaker for the day and the wealth of detail he managed to pack into his talks was beyond belief. All in all, the weekend was a fantastic success and our special thanks go to Ken Gillings for his spot-on organization and to his band of assistants: Paul Kilmartin, Major John Buchan and last, but not least, our guest speaker, Gilbert Torlage.

Lecture programme

Apology from the November newsletter: Your scribe wishes to apologise to fellow-member Brain Thomas for omitting his name from the list of credits on our recent Battlefields' Tour. Brian provided us with an excellent commentary on all the medals and decorations that were awarded during the various battles in and around Ladysmith during the siege and his clear and concise explanations were much appreciated by all. In the old days I could blame it on "gremlins", but now all I can offer as an excuse is senile decay. My humble apologies... !

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983

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